Toddlers are little bundles of non-stop energy. Sitting down is not one of their strong suits. Parents can encourage their energetic tots to enjoy some quiet family time at the table for meals. Make the table a comfortable place for the toddler and the whole family. Minimize trouble zones for the toddler by removing glass centerpieces or salt and pepper shakers, which can invite curious toddlers to play and make a mess rather than eat their meal. Tuck the ends of a tablecloth so they are out of reach to minimize the toddler’s temptation to tug on it. In the beginning, realize that toddlers will get up from the table frequently, but if you stick with the idea that food is eaten at the table, they will eventually sit until they are done with their meal.
Train a toddler early on to eat away from the television in the family room or the living room. Letting a baby eat every meal in front of the television will make it harder for you to convince the child to eat at the table during the toddler years. When you are trying to encourage the toddler to eat meals at the table, the table should be the rule and not the exception. Any meals eaten in front of the television should be labeled as special occasions.
Use the toddler’s high chair at the table if the toddler is accustomed to eating in one. Leave the tray on the table for the first few meals to let the toddler become accustomed to sitting at the table. When the toddler is ready, remove the tray and adjust the high chair to table level. Because the change is subtle and not abrupt, the toddler may not rebel.
Create a comfortable and inviting space for the toddler at the table. When the toddler is ready, move her out of the high chair and onto one of the regular chairs at the table. Buy a new booster seat or use an adjustable chair if you have one. Add a colorful place mat with the toddler’s favorite character or with shapes and letters.
Use praise to reinforce the positive behavior of eating at the table, according to Dr. Sears (See Resources). This can help shape behavior. Praise the toddler by telling him he is doing a good job of sitting and eating. Withdraw privileges from toddlers who do not follow the rules, according to Dr. Sears. Tell her that if she sits at the table to eat, she will be given a sticker or hand stamp after dinner, or she will be allowed to watch her favorite TV show. Make the connection to the desired behavior and the possible withdrawal of the item, Dr. Sears advises. Explain further that if she does not sit at the table to eat, she will not receive her favorite treat, or watch her favorite TV show after dinner. Privileges may be withdrawn from toddlers who make scenes at the dinner table.
Treat the behavior of not sitting at the table as you would any other undesirable behavior. If you are out at a restaurant, remove the toddler from the situation. At home, advise the toddler you will be withdrawing a privilege. Ease up on forcing the toddler to sit at the table if you are also trying to correct more than one behavioral issue. Michele Borba, Ed.D., advises parents of toddlers that it’s best to work at correcting one behavior at a time. Evaluate how important it is to enforce the table sitting rule if there are other more important behaviors that need correcting (aggression, for example). This concept falls in line with one discipline approach of Dr. Sears, called selective ignoring. If table sitting is not that important compared to bigger issues, it’s OK to let it go, according to Dr. Sears.
Make meal time family time. Require all family members, including mom and dad to eat the table for meals. When the toddler sees the rest of the family engaging in conversation and eating at the table, the toddler will want to be included in the action. Toddlers will model this behavior of sitting at the table and eating, according to Sharen Hausmann of Smart Start Atlanta.
Engage the toddler in meal time preparation, table setting, table manners and table clearing. The toddler will learn that there are some interesting things to learn and see at at the table. Toddlers can set out spoons and napkins before dinner. Teach the toddler to ask to be excused from the table, and to bring her plate to the sink. Penelope Leach, child psychologist, advises allowing the toddler to leave the table when he has finished eating.
- Remove centerpieces or other items which encourage touching. The more time the toddler spends fiddling with the salt and pepper, the less time he will spend eating.
- Sit toddlers down at the time when it’s time to eat as their actual sitting time will be limited.